Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.
So ends Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, his novel about modern art, aging and wrangling with the past. I recently read it for the second time, rented for free onto my Kindle because I gave away my print copy, bought used, to a friend. In exchange I received, I believe, one of my Bradbury books, which one I’m not sure.
The narrator character is a one-eyed retired painter and accidental heir to a considerable fortune in the Hamptons and owner of countless priceless works of art. Each abstract expressionist painting he owns was a gift for his patronage of struggling artists in decades past. His sprawling mansion with a private beachfront is his inheritance from his second wife, who he met while renting out her potato barn as a studio. His name is Rabo Karabekian, son of Armenian refugees, and he lives alone with his cook, her daughter, and his only friend, a blocked writer.
We meet Rabo as he is starting his autobiography (since that’s what we’re reading), prompted by his permanent house guest, Circe Berman, who trespassed on his beach one day, accepted his invitation to dinner, and never left. Now Circe prods Rabo not only into writing his memoirs, but also into grudgingly opening himself up to the present, which up to now he has successfully walled himself off from.
While reading, two items stuck inside my head and wouldn’t leave. One, his description of everything he and his painter friends liked about painting:
And second, Rabo’s secret image of the souls of everyone around him, in two passages:
In the weeks since finishing the story, I have taken to thinking of the “opportunity to lay on paint” as a useful metaphor for everything I love about life: namely, living it.
I have never painted before, but I had a canvas laying around for years from an old project idea that never materialized. Working from Rabo’s vision of souls as a single neon tube of pure light, I imagined a solid, vibrating stroke of color cutting through each person, extending beyond their bodies with its force. And a truer expression of their being than what they looked like, or what they did for money.
So I wanted to communicate this on canvas, and decided on working with silhouetted figures for two reasons: I cannot draw well enough for my liking, but I can make silhouettes with stencils; the anonymized features would provide more focus on the vibrating stroke of color.
I wanted to use figures who, even as silhouettes, were identifiable by profession, to draw attention to the primacy of their soul over their work. So I went with a businesswoman wearing a suit and heels and holding a briefcase; a janitor with his mop; and a baseball player following through on his swing.
Finding silhouettes online was simple enough. I resized them in Photoshop to be approximately the same size and printed them out before gluing them to oilboard and cutting out the stencil with an exacto knife. Simply held down manually while I quickly filled in the stencil with black acrylic paint, the silhouettes turned out good enough, although with fuzzy borders, which I grew to like.
Then I took white thread and hand-stitched the perimeter of the black figures, partly because I enjoyed the process, partly to communicate the restrictions of definition-by-profession, i.e. being tied to your work.
I decided to work with oil paints for the stroke of color. I wanted a thick, third dimension visible and a luster that communicated the vibrating motion I envisioned. My artist friend and Google pointed me in this direction and it was the perfect choice. Oil paints are gorgeous simply to look at.
I selected a violet, a crimson, and a green.
At first I imagined a swift, single stroke of the brush to apply the color, allowing artistic circumstance to play a role in its final form. It turns out, however, that you cannot load enough paint on a brush to provide a thick texture and long line of color in a single motion. So it took several applications of paint, but the effect was not diminished. And I met my goal for rich texture popping off the canvas.
However, the violet I selected does not stand out well against the black acrylic, and the colors are more muted than I expected, due in part to the thickness of the paint application. In thinner strokes on my palette, they were far more vibrant. I have a lot more paint, even though I selected the smallest volume they sold, and will have to experiment with these rich oil colors in future projects.
Oil paint also takes days or longer to fully dry. I might pick up some white oils to add highlights to the colors before they set, which might bring out the luminosity I envisioned.
As a first foray into visual media, I’d say my project, which I’m calling “Oh happy meat, oh happy soul” was a success. It probably took me eight hours total and I learned a lot about the media and the process of turning a perfect vision into an imperfect physical object.
I look forward to more opportunities to lay on paint.